A Gaithersburg Catholic priest who triggered national debate late last month when he denied Communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral Mass has been placed on administrative leave from ministry in the Washington archdiocese.

Details about why the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo was barred from ministry — a severe penalty — were not immediately available. The Washington Post learned of the action from a letter dated March 9 that was written to other archdiocesan priests.

The letter from Bishop Barry Knestout, a top administrator in the archdiocese, which covers Washington and its Maryland suburbs, says the punishment was for “engaging in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry.”

The archdiocese on Sunday confirmed Guarnizo’s removal and noted that Knestout’s letter was read at all Masses this weekend at the church where he served, St. John Neumann Catholic Church. The pastor there, the Rev. Thomas LaHood, said the removal was not related to the Communion controversy but “pertains to actions over the past week or two.”  He did not elaborate.

In announcing the penalty Sunday, LaHood spoke at some length about disagreements that have emerged in the parish because of what happened at the funeral Mass. “As we know, there’s been disagreement within the parish over how and to whom Communion is distributed,” he said before reading the letter. “From my perspective, this disagreement and related emotions flow from love. Love for Christ, really and truly present in the Eucharist. How­ever, how we live out this love is important. The scriptures tell us that we are known above all by how we love.”

Later, he said: “I realize this letter is hard to hear.” He told parishioners that it involved a “personnel issue, dealing with issues of ministry in the church.”

Lahood said, “Father Guarnizo will have every opportunity to present his position."

An archdiocesan spokeswoman would not clarify whether LaHood’s comments meant that Guarnizo would not be penalized for his handling of Barbara Johnson at the funeral.

Johnson, 51, a D.C. artist, has said that as she approached Guarnizo in the Communion line that day, he covered the bread and told her that he could not give her the sacrament “because you live with a woman, and in the eyes of the church, that is a sin.”

Guarnizo has refused to comment on what happened at the Mass.

Several bloggers have defended Guarnizo and claimed, citing anonymous witnesses, that Johnson’s version of events is inaccurate.

Johnson declined to comment Sunday beyond this statement:

“The Johnson family continues to pray for the Archdiocese of Washington, Father Guarnizo, and all Catholics during this time of upheaval. While we understand this letter does not pertain to the events that occurred at our mother's funeral, we are hopeful that Bishop Knestout’s decision will ensure that no others will have to undergo the traumatic experiences brought upon our family. We urge all Catholics to put aside political points of view, and pray that our Church will remain in Christ’s love.”

The interaction between Johnson and Guarnizo, who grew up in Northern Virginia and has spent much of his ministry in Russia and Eastern Europe, triggered intense and emotional debate among Catholics on the Web.

Some said being in a same-sex relationship makes someone automatically ineligible for Communion, a moment that Catholicism teaches creates the actual presence of Jesus Christ and is not for people outside of a “state of grace.” Others said the process of determining a person’s “state of grace” is complex and personal, something between a Catholic and God.

In the days after the funeral Mass, the archdiocese issued an apology to Johnson and sent a letter stating that Guarnizo’s refusal of Communion to her was against the policy of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, who has said it is not the right time or place for a spiritual standoff.

But in a public statement published by The Post, the archdiocese seemed to imply that both sides were at fault:

“We believe that to receive Communion, a person should be in the state of grace, which means that they are not conscious of having committed a sin serious enough that it ruptures their relationship with God. As with any relationship, it is not just a one-sided judgment that determines what hurts the relationship with God. This determination is based on what the Church teaches objectively from sacred Scripture and tradition of Christian experience. If a person is conscious of having committed a grave sin, he or she may not receive Communion until they have received absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. A person who is conscious of grave sin but has no opportunity to go to Confession may receive Communion for a serious reason, but first that person must pray to Christ expressing their sorrow, also known as a perfect act of contrition, and have the intention of going to Confession as soon as possible.”

Some local Catholic bloggers have reacted angrily, calling for a boycott of donations to the archdiocese.